Woad – the colour of Warriors

Woad is a Biennial native to Europe and western Asia and was probably introduced to Ancient Britain by the Celtic tribes emigrating from Europe. It has delicate yellow flowers that bloom from June to September and grows to a height of 1m, with bluish green feathery leaves, it then produced seeds that look like little black tongues. It can be found growing wild at the edges of cornfields and cliffs.

Grown in Europe since the Stone Age it has a long association with East Anglia, notably with Boudicca and the Iceni tribe who used woad to colour their faces before going into battle. Further north the Picts also gained notoriety for their body painting with the blue woad dye. The Romans referred to these Ancient Britons as ‘Picts’ as it is Celtic for “painted”.

Gerard tells us:
‘Glaston or Guadon, Woad is about three feet high, with long, bluish-green leaves growing round and out of the stalk, growing smaller as they reach the top, when they branch out with small yellow flowers, which in turn produce seed like little black tongues. The root is white and single. The Wild Woad is similar except that the stalk is softer, smaller and browner, and the leaves and tongues narrower. Where Woad is cultivated in fields, the wild Woad grows. It flowers from June to September. Caesar in his fifth book of the French wars mentions that the British stained themselves blue with woad. Pliny in his 22nd book, Chapter 1, says the French call it Glastum and British women and girls colouring themselves with it went naked to some of their sacrifices.
‘Garden Woad is dry but not sharp, Wild Woad is drier and sharper and biting. The decoction made of Woad is good for hardness of the spleen, also good for wounds and ulcers to those of strong constitution and those accustomed to much physical labour and coarse fare. It is used as a dye, profitable to some, hurtful to many.’
Culpepper says:
‘Some people affirm the plant to be destructive to bees, and fluxes them, which if it be, I cannot help it. I should rather think, unless bees be contrary to other creatures, it possesses them with the contrary disease, the herb being exceeding dry and binding. . . . A plaister made thereof, and applied to the region of the spleen which lies on the left side, takes away the hardness and pains thereof. The ointment is excellently good for such ulcers as abound with moisture, and takes away the corroding and fretting humours: It cools inflammations, quenches St. Anthony’s fire, and stays defluxion of the blood to any part of the body.’

He also says that the seeds, if chewed, turn the saliva blue. Scientists have now found that the plant has powerful cancer-fighting properties, producing large amounts of glucobrassicin – more than sixty times the amount found in broccoli, which is already known for its potential to reduce tumours.

The blue threads in the Bayeux Tapestry were dyed using Woad, and blue is the only colour not to have faded in more than nine hundred years. It was not until the 1930s that British police officers uniforms stopped being dyed with Woad.

In his Gallic Wars – Caesar tells us that the British warriors rode into battle with their bodies painted with a substance that was interpreted later to be Woad, if they were, and this is still open to debate, they may have been using it for its medicinal purposes as well as its dramatic appearance. Woad acts as a styptic, helping to contract blood vessels, and would therefore be good for staunching the flow of blood.

Sources; Modern Herbal, History of Woad, Druid Plant Oracle.


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